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Sunday, March 29, 2009

Brother, Can You Spare a Room?

In fact, once upon a time, the boardinghouse thrived in America, especially in New York. In 1856, Walt Whitman claimed that almost three-quarters of Manhattanites lived in one. He may have been exaggerating slightly, but the historian Wendy Gamber has estimated that “up to 30 percent of all 19th-century households took in boarders,” and the 1860 census counted 2,651 boardinghouse keepers in New York State alone. In 1857, foreseeing that the phenomenon might not last forever, Thomas Butler Gunn undertook to record it for posterity in The Physiology of New York Boarding-Houses, which is available in an opportunely reprinted edition from Rutgers University Press ($23.95) as well as a facsimile edition from Cornell University Library ($23.99). “I wonder what they were!” Gunn imagines a future researcher asking, and for an answer, he provides chapters on the Hand-to-Mouth Boardinghouse, the Fashionable Boardinghouse Where You Don’t Get Enough to Eat and the Boardinghouse Where the Landlady Drinks, among other representative types. New Yorkers of the 21st century will probably recognize the 8-by-6-foot rooms and the walls soiled where mosquitoes “have encountered Destiny in the shape of the slippers or boot-soles of former occupants.” But the unceasing drama of boardinghouse life — the flirtations, drunkenness, mutual irritation, backbiting, whining, eccentricity, conspiracy, chiseling and deceit — may come as a surprise. The closest modern parallel may be the comments section of a blog.


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